Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. is hitting the road again this week to make another push against sexual violence with the first of three speeches coming Tuesday at the University of Pittsburgh.
Biden’s tour this week is a continuation of his efforts to raise awareness about sexual assaults on college campuses and to get more people to join the “It’s On Us” pledge. After Pittsburgh, Biden will stop on campuses in Nevada, where he’ll be joined by Lady Gaga , and Colorado.
There’s optimism among advocates that the laws governing the handling of sexual assault claims could be updated with the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee having already held hearings on reauthorizing the Higher Education Act, and past comments by Chairman Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., expressing interest in moving the measure this year.
Biden is likely to carry a similar message as the one he took to the Academy Awards in February and the NCAA Final Four last Saturday night, when Biden’s favored Syracuse Orange lost to the North Carolina Tar Heels.
In an interview during TBS’ coverage of the Final Four games on Saturday, Biden said the change in culture is “overwhelming” and dependent on men speaking out.
“I did … town hall meetings nationwide because I learned that we made great progress except for college kids. So I asked them, what do you most think we should do? They said, get men involved,” Biden said. “And you guys know it. You see what’s happening now. These kids are standing up. A fraternity brother sees a freshman that’s drunk too much being taken upstairs, the guy has got to have guts to walk over and say, not on my watch, Jack.”
Off the court, Biden fared better than his alma mater’s team. The pledge picked up about 5,000 followers in conjunction with the Final Four, bringing the total number of signatories to about 332,000, with 50,000 or so in the aftermath of the Oscars, according to a White House official.
Second lady Jill Biden, a long-time community college professor, said during the same interview that the vice president’s interest in the newest initiative fit within his work over decades.
“Joe started this when he started the Violence Against Women Act. And you know one in five women will be sexual[ly] assaulted on campus. So Joe started the It’s On Us [initiative],” she said in a statement provided by the White House.
On a parallel track, the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault has been encouraging colleges and universities to change the way they handle reports of sexual abuse.
One offshoot of that has been a blueprint released last month by the University of Texas that was the result of work between the police for the massive university system and social work researchers. The document helps university police officers to better address the needs of victims, as well as broader questions about how cases are reported on campus.
An Association of American Universities survey from September 2015 said that 23 percent of female college students reported unwanted sexual contact of some nature, with official reporting lagging far behind reality.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a New York Democrat who has prioritized response to sexual assault both in the military and in higher education, is among lawmakers who hope to advance legislation as part of the higher education bill. A Gillibrand aide emphasized that if the higher education train does not move, however, advocates would seek other vehicles.
“Surveys keep confirming the prevalence of sexual assault on college campuses across the country, yet too many of our colleges and universities still aren’t taking this problem seriously and would rather sweep it under the rug. Our legislation would flip the incentives for schools, create transparency and accountability, and help make sure sexual assault is handled appropriately so our college campuses are safe,” Gillibrand said in a statement. “This broadly bipartisan bill would do just that; it has momentum; we’ve shined a spotlight on the issue and we are going to keep raising our voices until we pass it.”
Republican supporters share that sentiment.
A spokesman for Sen. Dean Heller said the Nevada Republican believes Biden’s issue could be addressed this year by Congress.
“That’s why Senator Heller has repeatedly spoken with Chairman Alexander about the Campus Accountability and Safety Act, bipartisan legislation Heller introduced to combat sexual assault on college and university campuses,” Heller spokesman Neal Patel told Roll Call. “The bill strengthens accountability measures for schools to ensure the safety of their students and provides survivors with the assistance they need.”
The measure would create new incentives for schools to get a more accurate accounting of sexual assaults in their campus communities through a national survey overseen by the Department of Education. It would also call for schools to develop better response plans.
Colleges and universities would need memorandums of understanding between local law enforcement and campus officials, as well as a designated point person to direct victims seeking information.
In a brief interview on Monday, Alexander said that the Higher Education Act could get done this year despite a truncated calendar for campaigns.
The immediate priority for the HELP Committee, however, is working through a bill to help provide resources for health research known as the 21st Century Cures Act, set to be marked up in part on Wednesday, Alexander said.
“We’ve done a lot of work on higher education. There’s bipartisan agreement on a good bit of campus sexual assault. So, there’s a chance we could get to it this year,” Alexander said.
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